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Panthers-Steelers wrapup...

December 24, 2010 - Ray Eckenrode

At a glance

Pittsburgh (11-4) vs. Clevleand (5-10)

1 p.m. Sunday, CBS

Broadcasters: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts.

Annoyance factor: Less than it would have been if we'd have gotten Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots. Fouts is considered an excellent analyst by a lot of smart people, although we've yet to see why, but we'll go into this with an open mind. Hilarious sidebar: We just did a quick Google search on "Fouts Steelers Browns" and found him referred to as Dan "I Hate Cleveland" Fouts in a Browns forum and Dan "Bernie Kosar" Fouts in a Steelers forum. He must be doing something right.

Refereee: We've been unable to find an official assignment, but by the process of elimination we think it will be Al Riveron, the NFL's only Hispanic official.

Competence factor: Riveron's crew throws relatively few flags, but as a white hat Riveron is among the leaders in overturning calls by replay.

Smarts say: The Steelers opened as 6-point favorites and the line has remained steady. The over/under is 37.5 so Vegas is thinking 22-16 Steelers. You can see what the Vegas insiders think about the game when the Las Vegas Hilton's Supercontest picks are posted sometime Saturday afternoon. Smarts contest:

Is there a draft in here?

It's time for the biggest regular season game of the year, so, of course, we want to talk about the draft (sorry, that's how we roll).

We noted back in April that, with the Steelers fielding one of the oldest teams in the league, the 2010 and 2011 drafts would be critical to the team's ongoing long-term success. We speculated Pittsburgh would need to find five eventual starters for the draft to be considered a success. Of course, it's still too early to make that ultimate judgment (we'll wait for 2013 to do that) but consider this a progress report.

A review of the selections shows three starters (and one Pro Bowler) from the 2010 slate:

1 (18) Maurkice Pouncey, C (starter, All Pro)

2 (52) Jason Worilds OLB

3 (82) Emmanuel Sanders WR (starter, 3rd receiver)

4 (116) Thaddeus Gibson DE

5 (151) Chris Scott OT

5 (164) Crezdon Butler CB

5 (166) Stevenson Sylvester LB

6 (188) Jonathan Dwyer RB

6 (195) Antonio Brown WR (starter, 4th receiver)

7 (242) Doug Worthington DT

Second guessing first pick

When your first-round pick becomes an All Pro in his rookie season, no one could possibly second guess that pick, right? Right? Well . not so fast. We're not going to try and bash the Maurkice Pouncey pick. He's started from Day 1 and looks like he's be an All Pro for the next 10 years. But . we will throw this into the mix. In selecting Pouncey, the Steelers passed over two players who seemed to fit more pressing needs. The first was cornerback Kyle Wilson, who's been so-so so far with the Jets. But the second, left tackle Roger Saffold of Indiana, who was predicted as the Pittsburgh pick in numerous mock drafts, is a different story. Saffold, taken with the first pick of the second round by the Rams, has stepped into the most difficult position in football and protected Sam Bradford's blind side like a fortress, allowing only two sacks through 15 games. He also looks like a 10-year All Pro, but he's playing the Steelers' most pressing position of need. In his annual draft "do over" at, Don Banks had Saffold going fifth overall instead of 33rd. When you pick where the Steelers almost always pick in the draft (somewhere between 18 and 30) you only very rarely get a crack at a franchise left tackle. To let one get away hurts, especially when you consider that all of Pittsburgh's AFC North foes have young studs at LT in Michael Oher in Baltimore, Joe Thomas in Cleveland and Andrew Whitworth in Cincy. The Steelers will pick somewhere after 20 this year and you can bet there won't be a left tackle available, leaving Max Starks as the most viable option - again.

Second guessing, the sequel

As you know if you read regularly, we're a world-class second guesser. So let's take a look at some of our draft second guessing and see how it played out:

We said: "Take Kyle Wilson over Pouncey"

Stats say: Wilson started the season as the Jets' nickel back but was torched early and often and hasn't played much in the last six weeks.

The verdict: It's still early, but we're willing to say we were wrong.

We said: "Take Sean Lee over Worilds"

Stats say: Lee has 24 tackles for the Cowboys and, of course, his two interceptions of Peyton Manning earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in early December. Worilds was not expected to contribute immediately so his 17 tackles and two sacks, including a game clincher against the Dolphins, can be considered a pleasant surprise.

The verdict: Still out, but it's looking like both these guys will be solid NFL starters.

We said: "Take Eric Decker over Sanders"

Stats say: Decker has four catches for 84 yards and two fumble. Sanders has 27 catches for 360 yards and two TDs and is becoming a bigger part of the offense every week.

Verdict: We were wrong.

We said: "Take LeGarrette Blount over Dwyer"

Stats say: Blount has been the surprise and steal of the 2010 draft with nearly 800 yards and 6 TDs for the Bucs. Dwyer had a sluggish preseason and has rarely been active for Pittsburgh.

Verdict: We thought taking a chance on the troubled Blount was a better idea than taking a chance on the troubled Dwyer and we were right - finally.

We said: "Take Dorin Dickerson over Brown"

Stats say: Dickerson was moved to WR by the Texans and has been buried on their depth chart behind Andre Johnson for most of the season. Brown's kickoff return TD against Tennessee could be one of the most important plays of the Steelers season so far and he's shown a lot in the Pittsburgh four- and five-receiver packages.

Verdict: Still out, but Brown certainly has exceeded expectations.

Fast Eddie skewers Goofball Goodell

The decision to cancel last Sunday's Eagles-Vikings game (and the general full-scale panic inspired in this country by any kind of inclement weather) was both a farce and a shame. And Ed Rendell's decision to expose it as such (and not back down from the NFL/ESPN PR machine when they tried to intimidate him) was funny and refreshing. But if the Eagles and the NFL continue to espouse the argument "that many fans expressed concern" about traveling to and from the game as the basis for bagging it, they are creating one very slippery slope.

Of course fans expressed concern about traveling! That's what people do now from November through May in the northeastern United States, they express concern. These are the same people who fill up the grocery stores two days before a forecast of six inches of snow!! And they started "expressing concern" about five days before Sunday when the weather weanies started getting them riled up about a "possible storm." If games can be canceled because fans are "expressing concerns," you are going to be canceling a lot of games.

We can guarantee you that thousands of Steelers fans from central Pennsylvania who must drive over Chickory Mountain to get to Heinz Field have regularly traveled in conditions much worse than what anyone would have encountered last Sunday trying to get to Lincoln Financial Field. We live in Pennsylvania. It snows here. Always has. People need to get places. They can decide themselves if the risk involved is merited. Football games are played in any weather. Period.

Second thoughts on Ward's level of play

We're certainly not alone in noticing that Hines Ward production has dropped dramatically in recent weeks as his number of dropped passes has risen alarmingly. We said last week we thought he was close to the end of the line. In retrospect, we all said the same thing last year about James Farrior at this time of the season and he resurrected his level of play this year so let's wait and see about Ward.

The pick

Colt McCoy was terrible last Sunday, looking uncomfortable and inaccurate in the cold weather. It was eerily similar to how Mark Sanchez looked against the Dolphins the week before he came into Pittsburgh and played lights out.

Peyton Hills was beastly for the Browns in the first half of the season, but he's been gradually running out of juice (word choice intended) in the last few games. We applaud his toughness, but you just can't withstand the level of violence with which Hillis was both receiving and delivering hits for an entire season.

But whether Hillis plays or McCoy struggles is of little consequence in this game. Assuming that Troy Polamalu doesn't play (and we are), this game comes down to two factors:

> Can the Steelers defense and return teams keep Josh Cribbs from > breaking one?

> Can Ben Roethlisberger "find" the touchdowns he's been leaving on the field the past few weeks with high throws?

The Cribbs factor should be obvious. He's a Steeler Killer from way back and he's getting healthy after dislocating four, count 'em, four toes on one of his feet about a month ago.

The Roethlisberger factor is less so. Because he's not throwing interceptions and because he's making those trademark scrambles, there's a general perception that the Steelers quarterback is playing well. But every week for the past few weeks, he's said in his postgame press conference that he doesn't really feel that way and that the Steelers missed a few scoring chances. And he's been right. And most of those scoring chances have gone awry because of high throws from #7. That can't happen this week in what's sure to be a divisional dogfight. We don't think it will. We think the Steelers will ride their quarterback's arm to the division title, but we'd be lying if we told we felt confident about that.Steelers 27, Browns (+6) 23.

Prediction record

Last week: Steelers to win, Panthers (+14) to cover; CORRECT, INCORRECT

(Blogger's note: Mr. Rudel tried to convince us last week that Pittsburgh was a shoe-in to cover, but we went the other way, and as the Black and Gold were running away with the game, he texted us, "How many times have you taken the Steelers to cover this year?" Our quick-witted (and true) response: "Every time they haven't." So, of course, we're turning over a new leaf in 2011 by taking the Steelers not to cover again.)

Season straight up: 8-7, .533

Against the spread: 4-11, .267

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